Friday, February 19, 2010

Olden Days (2)

Martin Carthy
Green Note, Camden Town
17 Feb

Last week, Martin Carthy on a stage with dry ice and synthesisers and lights and amps in front of an audience of a thousand. This week, Martin Carthy in a vegetarian cafe not much bigger than my Mum's front room, playing to an audience of fifty -- thirty-five of whom arrived in time to get seats, the rest perched on stools or standing around the bar. (Slightly cheeky, arguably, to charge money for tickets and then set things up so you only get a seat if you also buy dinner. Good cheesecake, though.)

Carthy comes onto the stage, or rather, onto the raised bit in the corner of the cafe, and without ado, launches into "Come listen  for a moment lads, and hear me tell my tale / across the seas from England I was condemned to sail..." I loved this song when Dylan turned it into a pop ballad; I love it when Mawkin: Causley do it as a big production number; but Carthy strips it right down to the simple melody and stark, harsh words so you can actually hear it being sung by a real poacher on a real convict ship. And then straight into Broom, Green Broom, which he points, out shows that dads and teenagers haven't changed much over the centuries. ("He had a son, his name it was John/And he stayed in his bed until noonday, noon / The father arose and to his son goes / And swore he would fire his room...")

He gives us a fair old sample of his vast repertoire -- he claims that he only needs to hear a song once to know it by heart -- in two generous sixty minute sets. He refrains from singing the dirty words to Cuckoo's Nest, but if we're paying attention during a perfectly timed, unaccompanied Tailor of Whitby, we can work out what the title means. (And doesn't it give you some kind of hope for the future of the human race that a cock joke can remain funny for two hundred years?)

He does a lot of the Famous Ones, of course. There's a poignant My Bonny Boy Is Young But He's Growing; a long, dramatic Prince Heathen, with many instrumental breaks. No female highwaymen, though, to my very mild disappointment.

There are a few minor departures from his very traditional brief. The second half starts, unannounced, with a dotty bit of half-sung, half-recited Victorian music hall whimsy ("don't go in them lions' cage tonight, mother"). He does the Imagined Village version of My Son John, in which the young man's legs are replaced with carbon fibre blades rather than crutches. The Three Jovial Welshmen ("Can someone tell me why that always gets a laugh?") mistake a haystack for Barbara Cartland -- which gives some indication as to how long he's been singing that particular version of the song. I'm guessing that the stanza about Crookback Richard's taxation policy is even older.

What I like best of all are the long, long narrative ballads. The boy in the forest who sends his friend to take a love message to married woman, resulting in him losing his head. (Completely new to me: Carthy says it's one of his six or seven favourite songs, and one can see why.) The witch who curses a woman so that she will get pregnant, but never give birth, and is caught out by one of those ruses that only work in fairy tales. And the final, daft encore about the farmer who bets his soul that he can find an animal that the Satan won't recognise.

Although he obviously knows which songs work as opening and closing numbers he has no set-list, and sometimes seems to genuinely pause and say "I think I'll sing...no, maybe I'll do this one first."

Louise said that Carthy, for all his fame and influence still seems to be saying "I'm just going to sing you a few songs I like -- I hope you like then too." I think it's the modesty of the true folk singer -- he knowns that the songs are the star: he's just a conduit for them.

Genius.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Olden Days (1)

So I thought what the world probably needed most was for me to start keeping a diary of the various gigs I seem to have been going to.

Apologies in advance to anyone who properly knows about this stuff.

The Imagined Village
Jan 23rd
Colston Hall, Bristol

Wasn't quite sure if I was going to like this. 

The Imagined Village is a folk "super-group": an ensemble consisting of three performers (Chris Wood, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy) who I'd pay good money to hear playing solo, backed by a band that disconcertingly includes synths, a sitar, and one of those huge punjabi drums you play with curly sticks.

It took me a while to get the hang of what they were doing: "Yes," I said, "I get that England is a multi-ethnic society; I get that if folk music is the music of England then it ought to include a Dhol and a Sitar...but I'm still not sure I wouldn't just as soon be listening to Martin Carthy singing John Barleycorn without all the synthesized jiggery pokery that seems to be drowning out the words."

Yeah, I know. Going to folk gigs for less than a year, and already claiming to prefer the Martin Carthy version.

But I was very much won over, partly by Chris Wood's infectiously self-deprecating patter. "This is a traditional song," he says "I learned it the normal way, from Simon and Garfunkel (*)...There have been lots of versions...but the one thing they've all lacked is a sitar" -- whereupon we notice that, yes, the sitar player is indeed picking out the melody to Scarborough Fair, and, yes, Wood's expressive, harsh, almost anti-lyrical delivery contrasts with the rather sweet accompaniment to produce something which works as a song. 

Call it "fusion" if you need to.

Not that I "got" all of it. Eliza Carthy's synthesizer laden rendition of something called Space Girl left me wondering if there was a musical joke that I was failing to get? Was this some traditional song about a girl being warned not to go onto the moors recast as a warning to young aliens not to travel in space? (**) But no-one can quarrel with her fiddle playing.

I wasn't convinced by all of the lyrical updatings: I don't see that My Son John is automatically improved by adding references to Iraq and Afghanistan or having the protagonist lose his legs to land mine rather than a canon ball: but the performance is undeniably powerful.

The evening winds up with two entirely unspontaneous encores. Martin Carthy leads the entire company and the audience in the Copper-song Hard Times of Old England rather more successfully updated (by Billy Bragg, I think) so it's about modern, rather than eighteeth century, rural life.("The countryside alliance expects I suppose / my support when they're marching to bloody Blair's nose / but they said not a word our post office closed".) Carthy is then left alone on stage, the very personification of old fashioned folk, just that slightly over-articulated voice and plinky-plonky guitar to do a solo rendering of that traditional old English classic, er, Cum On Feel The Noize. The rest of the cast come back on stage, one at a time, to wind up the evening with what was both a corny sing-a-long and an objective correlative of the proposition "folk music can be old fashioned and up to date at the same time."

Simon Emmerson, the onlie begatter of the Imagined Village project invites Martin Carthy to read a rather pointless piece from the previous Saturday's Grauniad, which had revealed what kinds of music Evil people enjoy. Mr Mugabe likes Cliff Richard, Osama Bin Ladan likes Whitney Houston -- and our very own little Nicky Griffin likes English folk, particularly Eliza Carthy. As a contribution to the debate, the audience was invited to give a two fingered salute and shout "bollocks": which was filmed and will be forwarded to Mr Griffin in due course.

Of course, what was really offensive in the article was the laughing-behind-the-hands attitude of the journo: implying that while it was comically incongruous that Mugabe would curl up with Cliff, English folk is very much the sort of thing you'd expect English Nazis to like. And the whole evening was an effective slap in the face to that kind of lazy thinking.

VERY IMPORTANT FACT: During the interval, we witnessed an event which has never before occurred in British Theatrical History: a queue for the Gents, but not for the Ladies. It is unclear whether this was because:

a: Colston Hall foyer, newly revamped in the popular "airport departure lounge" style has allocated a sensible amount of floorspace to bathrooms or

b: The audience disproportionately consisted of males over the age of 45

(*) Since S & G arguably stole the  song from Martin Carthy, that was actually quite a pointed remark.

(**) No, it actually an original song by Ewan McColl. Shows how much I know...



Bellowhead
Bristol Old Vic
4th Feb

"This tune was originally written in 1653...Which is a tricky time signature."

It goes without saying that Bellowhead are fantastic. I do, however, start to wonder if they are a little too fantastic, in danger of becoming a rampaging juggernaut that will give everyone else the impression that this is what folk music is actually like. They are a sufficiently big noise that, for one night only, the Oldest Continually Working Theatre In Britain had physically removed the seating, so people in the stalls could dance along to all the hornpipes and morris tunes. No-one did, but it was nice to think they could have done if they'd wanted to.

Jon Boden (tall, fiddle player, singer) and John Spiers (short, squeeze-box player; sometimes, one feels, playing Swann to Spiers exuberant Flanders) are sometimes described as "punk folk" -- or even "junk folk", whatever that might mean. Bellowhead is another "supergroup" that has formed around them. Some of the performers are traditional folkies (Sam Sweeny, of the aforementioned Kerfuffle, plays fiddle and even whips out some Northumbrian pipes in the final number) (*). Others, like the four piece brass section, not so much.

This evening was a try out of new material, all of which, Mr Boden tactfully pointed out, was about shagging. The songs range from ultra-traditional fare like The Two Magicians and The Broomfield Hill to David Bowie's Port of Amsterdam and an utterly out of place calypso about running out of a Chinese restaurant without paying the bill.

There's a lot more stage business than there was the last time I saw them. The brass section walk off stage at the beginning of one song, only for the trumpeter to rush back on to play his one bar at the end of the first verse. Boden is doing less patter than usual, though, and more actual conducting. I get the impression that this is really is new material that they aren't quite sure of.

It's cheeky, almost naughty, and one sometimes feels that, like the Imagined Village they are working a shade too hard to prove a point about folk music being neither arthritic nor white. Two Magicians is one of those edifying Celtic songs in which a man tries to rape a lady by magically changing into various kinds of animal ("So the lady she turned into a hare / and ran across the plain / But he became a greyhound dog / and he ran her down again") with a stonking chorus. Here, it's dominated by a 70s Jazz/Funk brass section which really has nothing to do with the piece, but which doesn't distract Boden from his slightly ironic, folksy delivery -- gesticulating so wildly that you start to wonder if he's drunk, or about to lose his balance.

I like best the songs where where Boden's actually telling a story (usually signified by raising his left arm and pointing at thin air) -- the reinvention of The Broomfield Hill ("rather an odd courting tactic") and a genuinely dramatic version of The Weaver and The Factory girl. Some of the material is a little over-the-top for my taste: a rendition of a sea shanty about harbour side prostitutes  ( Little Winnie Ducket / Washes in a bucket / she's a whore but doesn't luck it) veers between a very loud, very rocky declamation and a sweet, Sunday School delivery for the verse about the Vicar's daughter. It made for a stunning bit of live musical theatre, but I don't know that I'd want to listen to it very often.

I guess the only downside of the evening was this. There were two or three numbers which absolutely stopped the show. One was Kipling's Cholera Camp -- which gives full range to Boden's dramatic ability, the delivery getting wilder and wilder as the fever rises; an increasingly excitable and out of tune brass section; and little character spots for other musicians ("The chaplain's got a banjo...!") to say nothing of a sing a long chorus for the audience ("Oh lord for it's a killing of us all...": it is, as the man said, the jolliest song ever written about cholera). Another was the final double whammy of London Town and Frog's Legs. All of which are, of course, songs from their existing albums.

I don't know if this is because the audience likes the stuff they know more than the unfamiliar material; or because the new material is not quite as polished as the stuff they've been doing for years; or if the brilliance of the musical experimentation is in danger of drowning out the, er, tunes.

"Wizard sex,", indeed.

(*) English border bagpipes, actually.


Fairport Convention
St George's Bristol
5th Feb

I shall now display my ignorance.

Obviously, I know who Fairport Convention are: at any rate, I know that Fairport Convention are, and I know that they are mighty, legendary, seminal etc. And, having read the programme notes, I know that people I have heard of, and indeed heard (Dave Swarbrick, Ashley Hutchings) are intertwined with the band's history. But I hadn't actually heard any of their music until last night.

So Fairport fans, of whom there are several, are probably going to want to lynch me after they read what follows Presumably the rope will break and they'll give up after the third attempt. (Do you see what I did there?)

St George's a more sedate venue than the Old Vic, or at any rate, than the Old Vic when it's full of Bellowhead fans, and this evening feels more like a Recital than a Gig. The support group Dark Horses were, er, trying. Keith Donnelly is, we are assured, a very funny man, who has written jokes for both Jasper Carrot and the Tellytubbies. I thought he was trying too hard. ("I don't speak French. I joined the French society at school. We didn't do much. Except surrender to the German society.") He'd written all the (serious) songs, and played the guitar. Flossie Malavialle has a sweet voice. The material resembled Jeremy Clarkson's worst nightmare of what folk music is like. An eco-friendly re-write of Green Grow the Rushes ("ten for acid rain, nine for global warming, when she's gone our earth is gone and ever more shall be so"); an unaccompanied cri-de-coeur from all the animals that man is horrid to ("I am whale" "I am fox") all filtered through a decent bluesy delivery. I didn't positively want them to leave the stage but I didn't demand an encore, either.

O.K: here is my impression of the main feature.

There's a lot of folk instrumentals, dominated by two brilliant fiddlers doing that intense diddly-diddly-dee stuff where melody dissolves into pure, breathless rhythm; backed by OTT 70s style heavy (*) rock. This very much appeared to work, to be musically clever, and I could see the connection to Dave Swarbrick (who I heard at this venue at the end of last year) even before the programme notes explained that to me. I particularly enjoyed the one about the man from Shetland who reacts to being hit over the head with a mallet by going home and writing a tune.

There's traditional and semi-traditional vocal material which worked less well for members of the audience (e.g. me) who didn't already know the songs. The main set finished on a narrative ballad, Matty Groves, which I feltI  ought to have liked, but couldn't follow. The rhythmically and lyrically complicated Festival Bell worked rather more, although it possibly meant more in the context of the festival for which it was written.

The sections most clearly in the spirit of 1970s rock seemed to be veering into antiques: Clarrie tells me that when I listen to the whole of the Babicombe Lee concept album I will appreciate the way it changes from traditional folk to contemporary rock, but listening to the final section out of context revived all my worst memories of Thursday night Top of the Pops.

And this is a built in problem: a show by a group which has been touring for 40 years is always going to be full of material whose significance is entirely lost on the newcomer. I simply didn't grok the importance of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" ("Sandy's song, but tonight, it's our song") until it was explained to me.

This was no tribute band or reunion gig; I was clearly in the presence -- particularly with the fiddlers -- of musicianship of a very high order, and it has certainly made me wish to familiarize myself with band's back catalogue. But I had an overriding sense of having walked in at the very end of the party.

(*) Actually, I may not be a sufficiently sound geologist to accurately distinguish between the "hard", "heavy", and "soft" varieties: wild drum rhythms and electric guitar riffs, at any rate.


June Tabor
Old Vic
7th February

I would not dream of attempting to write criticism of the wonderful June Tabor.

They'd put the seats back into the Old Vic, and the audience was, if anything, older than on Wednesday. If Bellowhead was a pop gig and Fairport a recital, June was very definitely a grown up concert.

There is June Tabor, looking all somber and monolothic. There is a quartet of musicians (piano, base, fiddle, squeeze-box). There is an an Actor (Simon Russell Beale, no less). They perform a highly structured sequence of songs and readings on a single theme, "the sea". There are some laughs, but not many.

It avoided a lot of the more obvious choices of music. We finished on the fantastic Patrick Spens which seems to me to be a perfect example of what June Tabor does best – a relatively simple folk melody which allows her a full range of characters and drama; positively angry when the sailors are accused of wasting the kings money; genuinely desperate as the inevitable shipwreck occurs. ("there's a hole, a hole in our ship's side and through it pours the sea..."). But there was no Admiral Benbo, and Shoals of Herring turned up only as an exquisite, but very brief instrumental solo.

There was a lot of Cyril Tawney material, of course, but surprisingly, three different pieces by Les Barker. I was aware of Barker as a writer of cheeky-chappy sting-in-the-tale comic poems, and clever parodies of folk songs. I hadn't realized he wrote straight, and absolutely heartfelt songs - like the chilling Wall of Death (about over fishing) and Over the Sea, about the highland clearances. Tabor explains the clearances in a tone of voice which implies that she's still personally annoyed about them. (We  do also get one of his dafter songs, "No-one sings a shanty like Sinatra sings a shanty" which gave Tabor the opportunity to go "do-be-do-be-doo....")

Ship wrecks, over fishing, highland clearances...and by way of light relief, a medley about cannibalism: a slow, expressive reading of The Ship in Distress is followed by the engagingly daft, unaccompanied Little Boy Billee, about two sailors who attempt to eat the cabin boy because they are so hungeree: "So Billy went up to the main-top gallant mast/And down he fell on his bended knee." Aside to audience "and that's not easy to do." My French wasn't good enough to follow the third one, in which the protagonist really does get eaten. With sauce. (*)

June Tabor's performance style is emotional but understated: delivered straight to the audience, letting her voice tell the story, head drooping to the right to show sadness when the bad thing inevitably happens, bowing when the song finishes. She's at her most animated during the instrumental pieces, when she could obviously not restrain her feet from starting to tap in time with the music.

Oh, and at least three words on Mr Beale's readings. He starts out with a brilliantly silly couplet by the aforementioned Les Barker and reads it so deadpan that it takes the audience several seconds to realise that the punch line is a punch line: His reading of a passage about the unpromising subject of Aberdeen Fish market by one H.V Morton ("the Bill Bryson of his day") genuinely brought the house down adding a much needed light note to the darkness of the rest of evening.

On the basis of her website, Ms Tabor only does about 3 concerts a year, but I'll be holding my breath for the next one. (Maybe someone will invite me to stay in York at the end of September?)

(1)Wikipeida, which I trust implicitly, says the Billee poem really is by William Thackary and is a parody of the French one.

Friday, February 12, 2010

On Monday, P.C. Plod had tea with his friend, Harry Callahan.

"Burglar Bill is a very bad man," says Harry.

"He certainly is a very bad man indeed," says P.C. Plod.

"I think the best thing would be if he were killed," says Harry.

"I think killing Burglar Bill would be a very good thing indeed," says P.C Plod.
 


On Tuesday, P.C Plod is out on patrol.

Who should he see but Burglar Bill!

P.C. Plod calls up Sgt Goldsmith on his walkie talkie, because this was in the olden days before there were mobile phones.

"I've seen Burglar Bill!" says P.C Plod.

"He's a bad man," says Sgt Goldsmith.

"A very, very bad man," says P.C. Plod

"A very bad man indeed," says Sgt. Goldsmith.

"Can I kill him, huh, huh, huh, can I kill him, can I?" says P.C. Plod.

"Certainly not," says Sgt Goldsmith "We haven't had the death penalty in Toytown for years and years and years, and even if we did, you couldn't just shoot him, you'd have to arrest him and fill out all the necessary paper work."

"Wait a minute," says P.C Plod "If Burglar Bill had a gun, would it be legal for me to kill him?"

"Well," says Sgt Goldsmith "If he had a gun and if he was threatening you or the citizens of Toytown, then it might be legal for you to kill him."

"What an astonishing coincidence," says P.C Plod "I've just noticed that Burglar Bill has a gun, and is going to shoot me and several of the citizens of Toytown, unless I act very quickly."

Bang, bang, bang, goes P.C. Plod's gun.


On Wednesday, the Mayor of Toytown sends for P.C. Plod.

"I hear that you killed poor William Burglar," says the Mayor. "This is very bad, and you will have to sit on the naughty step till tea time."

"But I only killed him in self-defence!" says P.C Plod "He had a gun, and was threatening the people of Toytown."

"Oh, that's all right then," says Mr Mayor.


On Thursday, Doctor Bob knocks on Mr. Mayor's door.

"After P.C. Plod shot Burglar Bill, a concerned citizen called for me, and I came jolly quickly on my bicycle with my little black bag to try to patch him up with vinegar and brown paper. And guess what?"

"What?" says the Mayor.

"Burglar Bill didn't have a gun at all!"

"Oh dear," says the Mayor.

So he calls back P.C.Plod and tells him that he did kill Burglar Bill and would have to sit on the naughty step until tea time after all.

"I have already told you" says P.C Plod "That I killed him in self defence, because he had a gun."

"But he didn't have a gun," says the Mayor.

"I know he didn't have a gun," says P.C Plod "Who on earth said he did have a gun? But I thought he had a gun, and so did everyone else and so would you have done if you had been there. It turned out that the thing he was waving at the citizens of Toytown was a table leg and not a gun at all. But if it had been a gun, he would have shot me, so you can't blame me for making such a Terrible Mistake."

"That's fair enough," says the Mayor.


But on Friday, several of the citizens of Toytown go and knock on the Mayor's door.

"Mr Your Worship The Mayor" say the Citizens, who know the proper way of talking to a Mayor, "We were there when P.C. Plod killed Burglar Bill, and we can tell you that Burglar Bill didn't have a gun, or even a chair leg, and he certainly wasn't threatening to shoot anyone. In fact, before P.C Plod's gun went bang bang bang, we both shouted 'Oh P.C Plod, please do not shoot Burglar Bill, for he is unarmed!' "

"Oh dear," says the Mayor, who is beginning to think that he is trapped in an extended metaphor, and sends for P.C Plod again.

"You killed Burglar Bill, go and sit on the naughty step," says the Mayor.

"We have been through this before," says P.C Plod. "I have admitted that I made a terrible mistake in shooting an unarmed burglar, but it was an honest mistake because I thought that he had a gun, and burglars sometimes do have guns so it is better to be safe than sorry."

"But you didn't think he had a gun," says the Mayor. "At least, the several of the citizens of Toytown say that he was unarmed at the time. So there is no way that you can say that it was a self defence."

"Who ever mentioned self-defence?" says P.C Plod. "Why on earth do you keep going on about self-defence, and bringing guns into it? Burglar Bill was a very bad man, so even if I had known that he didn't have a gun, which I didn't, I would still have shot him, because Toytown is much safer without him and you should be very pleased that he is dead."

"Whether I am pleased or not has nothing to do with it!" says the Mayor, crossly. "You asked Sgt Goldsmith for permission to kill him, and he told you quite clearly that if he didn't have a gun it would be illegal to kill him however bad a man he was."

"I realise that we are never going to agree on this," says P.C Plod "And I, you know, totally respect your right to hold a, you know, different point of view, but I formed the view that Toytown would be better off without Burglar Bill, so I took the decision to remove him because I really, honestly, sincerely, in my heart of hearts, believed that it was the right thing to do."

"Oh, well, that's all right then," says the Mayor.


On Saturday, P.C Plod knocks on the Mayor's door.

"You know what I said yesterday, about how it was right for me to kill Burglar Bill because I sincerely believed that killing Burglar Bill was the right thing to do?"

"Yes," says the Mayor, whose head was spinning a bit by this time.

"Well, I think that I may have chosen my words badly. What I think I meant to say was that I really, genuinely, and sincerely believed that it would have been right to kill him if he had had a gun, but that, since bad men do sometimes have guns and since you can't ever be sure which ones do and which ones don't  the best way to make sure that he didn't have gun was to kill him, so killing him because he had a gun and killing him because he was a bad man are really the same thing, and it was self defence even if I knew he didn't have a gun, which I didn't, because he might have got a gun afterwards."

"I'm glad we've got that sorted out," says the Mayor.


On Sunday, P.C Plod has tea with his friend Harry Callahan.

"Burglar Joe is a very bad man," says Harry.  

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Please do not tell any of your friends that "Where Dawkins Went Wrong" is now available from Amazon, as I get rather more pennies if they order it straight from Lulu.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Avatar (a film)

"I thought that was very good," said Andrew at the end of Avatar.

"I thought that was very good," replied Louise.

"I thought that was very good," added Jonathan.

"Bugger," said Andrew "What are we going to talk about for the rest of the weekend?"

Avatar is a gripping, involving, but not particularly original Cowboys and Indians movie; transposed to a well-drawn and convincing science fiction setting. Jake, our hero, has his mind transferred into the body of a member of a tribe of blue aliens called the Navee so he can learn their ways and help the Human Colonists negotiate with them. But – astonishingly – he Goes Native and sides with the Navee against the Humans when the shooting starts.

Jonathan, who reads Empire, tells me that all the alien planet sequences were constructed entirely on a computer: since I'd assumed that it was doing the Peter Jackson thing of recording footage in New Zealand and using a computer to enhance the scenery, this must count as an unequivocal success.

Some of the plot devices were a little clunky, but they were all either the kind of clunky plot device that is part and parcel of a movie of this kind -- or else so carefully foreshadowed that they don't seem that clunky when you got to them. It's pretty much inevitable that the squaw who finds the hero when he's separated from the cavalry is the daughter of the big chief, and equally inevitable that our hero will fall in love with her. And the silly climax, in which all the fauna on the planet spontaneously attacks the Bad Men who are going to burn the Sacred Tree, doesn't feel silly at all because we've seen our hero praying to the Sacred Tree and asking it to help him win the battle. Since we've already been told that the all the animals and plants on the planet are connected together into a sort of vegetarian computer, it makes complete sense that he should be able to influence the tree to influence the animals to attack the Humans. We spend the slightly too long final battle saying "How will the tree help out?" and react to this literal deus ex machina by saying "Ooo...clever," rather than "Oh, what a literal deus ex machina!"

It was, both literally and metaphorically, a little too green. Say what you like about the Star Wars prequels, and I have, but they keep jumping from one jaw-dropping landscape to a completely different jaw-dropping landscape, so your eye never gets bored. Avatar dumps you in one jaw-dropping rain forest and leaves you there for three hours, rather as if you'd had to spend the whole of Return of the Jedi on Endor.

And speaking of which: the final battle does rather lapse into Ewok logic. At the beginning of the film we are supposed to find it silly that savages think they can damage giant mega-tanks with bows and arrows; but at the end of the film we are are expected to believe that bows and arrows fired by a large number of really motivated and very noble savages would be able to do so. That we largely do believe this is a tribute to how well drawn and immersive the film is. But still. If a herd of really angry elephants charged a tank, I'm not completely sure which side I'd place my bet on.

The natives have a sort of biological scart cable in the pig-tails, and can literally plug their brains into the planets flora and fauna. They can become literally "at one" with their mounts; they can commune with planet's ecosystem; and the minds of their dead are literally downloaded into the biosphere. A nice science fictiony idea, this, and someone will tell me where it was swiped from. But I rather suspect that Mr Cameron has a notion that it is also a Really Profound Metaphor, and just as the Navee can literally plug themselves into the soul of the planet, so can we in a very real sense, commune with the Earth, provided we stop destroying the environment by fighting wars, burning carbon, going to the movies, etc.

The one really weak point in the movie is the characterisation of the human colonists, who work, of course, for The Company. (Sigourney Weaver herself shows up to provide the technobabble.) The Company are only interested in the planet as a source of a McGuffin called (I liked this) Unobtanium; it answers only to it's shareholders. The Colonel in charge is so one dimensional that he would be chewing the scenery if it wasn't computer generated: unable to quite decide if he's in Apocalypse Now or Moby Dick. When he announces that he's going to gratuitously nuke the Navee's Sacred Tree in order to generate some "shock and awe", his team of marines nod and grin, and seem to have been recruited entirely from the brute squad. (Had the humans been on the planet to obtain, say, a precious drug which was the only thing which could possibly save the human race from a terrible lurgyplague then Jake would have been faced with a genuinely difficult moral dilemma. Now, one man must choose, between a race entirely consisting of happy, spiritual folk living an idyllic life and a race entirely consisting of nasty sweary money grabbing thugs. Gee, which way will he decide?)

Clearly, the thing has been over hyped to an embarrassing degree: we are told that there are people who have seen the film dozens of times, that it has changed their life, that there may have been suicides by people who don't want to live if they can't live on Pandora. In fact a ludicrous amount of money and skill has been spent on what is really a very, very slight narrative.

But this doesn't matter: the film isn't making any particular claim to be a new religious movement, although the Hollywood publicity machine may be. From the opening moments when the crippled ex-marine agrees to have his brain transplanted into a Navee it is absolutely clear what kind of a movie we are watching, and it delivers on all its promises. The hero does indeed get the girl. The Navee do indeed, after much sacrifice and derring do, repel the invaders who want to steal their land. The hero does indeed get initiated into the tribe's ways, and we do indeed feel that those Ways are plausible and interesting and quite pretty and inspirational. The first time we see the nasty Colonel, he is in one of those Transformer-type exo-skeletons and, sure enough, after his big space ship has been destroyed and the Holy Tree has been saved; everything comes down to a one-on-one between Smurf and Armoured Space Marine.

The Skiffynow writer's guidelines list "does exactly what it says on the tin" as a cliché to avoid at all costs. But Avatar does.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Papal Visit Controversy Redux

Wanda: Red-headed people cannot be cauldron polishers. If my cauldron is polished by a person with red hair, than my broom stick may fail to fly properly.

Harriet: As of next Tuesday, it shall be against the law to discriminate on the grounds of hair colour.

Wanda: But that's NOT FAIR. That means my cauldron can NEVER BE POLISHED and my boom stick will NEVER FLY.


Harriet: Hmm.... I'm not at all sure I believe in all this flying broomstick stuff, but I guess the same logic which says that you shouldn't discriminate against red heads also says that the state shouldn't stop you from performing your ceremonies... So: "As of next Tuesday, it shall be against the law to discriminate on the grounds of hair colour, without a very, very good reason." That covers cauldron polishers, and also for example theatres who might not want to hire a red headed actor to play a character who everyone knew was blonde.

Wanda: By the way, did I mention that only fully certified cauldron polishers can sweep up after the ceremony? And obviously, the coven canteen has to be staffed by qualified cauldron polishers. And lots of our members run crystal shops, macrobiotic restaurants and book shops. Obviously, it would be unreasonable to expect them to hire anyone who wasn't a cauldron polisher.

Harriet: No, hang on, that's going much too far. I'll make an exception for your ceremonies, which are none of my business, frankly, but everywhere else the same employment rules which apply to everyone else apply to you too.

Wanda: But that's NOT FAIR. Refusing to employ red-heads is an IMPORTANT PART OF BEING A WITCH! Discrimination! Human rights!


Several Hon. Members: We never liked witches in the first place, they made my granny impotent, they turned me into a frog, witches are worse than child molesters, send them back where they came from, why can't we burn them like in the good old days, etc, etc, etc

Friday, January 22, 2010

In the most recent season of the dreadful Torchwood, Gwen Cooper had a strange interlude:

"There's one thing I always meant to ask Jack, back in the old days. I wanted to know about that Doctor of his, a man who appears out of nowhere and saves the world ... except sometimes he doesn't. All those times in history when there was no sign of him. I wanted to know why not, but I don't need to ask any more. I know the answer now. Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame."

Well, that's one possible explanation: but there are others. Maybe our intellects are so limited and the Doctor's so vast that it is literally meaningless for us to question him. Maybe we're so degenerate that what seems bad to us is good from the Time Lord's point of view. Maybe the Doctor can perceive all kinds of unintended consequences and knows that there are occasions when saving the world is not the best thing to do for the best of all possible worlds. Or maybe from the right perspective we'll be able to look back and see that during the earth's times of trial and suffering, when we saw only one set of footprints, it was then that the Doctor was carrying us.
*
You expect closing nights to be a bit self-indulgent. Actors thank each other for being so lovely. They give each other flowers, burst into tears, make speeches and maybe play a silly prank during the very, very last encore.

Remember the final episode of Logopolis? Having saved the universe from The Master, Tom Baker fell off a telescope and changed into Peter Davison. But Mr Producer decided that it would be a wheeze if, before the big switch-over, the Fourth Doctor's whole life flashed before his eyes. This sequence consisted of a series of clips of enemies and companions from the previous seven seasons all saying the word "Doctor!" Tom Baker had been the Doctor for longer than anyone else and this leant a certain gravitas to his last bow. It also established a precedent: when Peter Davison changed into Colin Baker three years later a series of specially filmed cameos of his former companions hovered around his head, encouraging him not to die. 

So maybe the epilogue to The End of Time was simply keeping up a noble tradition of flashbacks and cameos and last night pranks. Admittedly he Tom Baker scene lasted a total of 30 seconds and the Peter Davison one for about 50 while David Tennant's curtain call went on for a full twenty minutes. But that's because Russell Davies believes that everything in new Who should be bigger and better than what went before. When he can't manage that, he just settles for bigger.

Regeneration was never that big a deal. The Fourth Doctor fell from a great height; the Fifth Doctor consumed poison and the Sixth Doctor - well, lets not talk about the Sixth Doctor. The point is that they were all pretty much standard issue Doctor Who stories which just happened to end with the death of the protagonist. But David Tennant is different. David Tennant is the greatest Doctor of all time. David Tennant has been the Doctor for almost as long as Peter Davison, and even longer than Paul McGann. David Tennant is the only Doctor who people who started watching Doctor Who during David Tennant's first season have ever known. There was a clip of David Tennant pretending to be Santa before every, single TV programme during the whole Christmas period. (Has anyone, even Eric and Ernie, ever had that kind of hype?) He is Britain's best loved actor. He is the definitive Hamlet. So of course his exit has to be specially doom-laden; specially epic; specially long drawn out; bigger and bigger than anything else in the whole history of Doctor Who, ever.
*

Why, exactly did they leave in the two scenes which foreshadow the arrival of a Norwegian prince and then cut the actual scene where the Norwegian prince turns up? Come to that, why leave in the rather irrelevant bit about Fortinbras marching through Poland, if our Dave is only going to get to say the first few lines of "How all occasions do inform against me?" Or let him complain about how the only thing anyone knows about the Danes is that their King holds loud, drunken parties if he isn't going draw the conclusions that the same thing sometimes applies to individuals? And have you ever seen anyone in mental distress doing that thing of pressing the balls of their thumbs on their foreheads? There was certainly a very high quantity of acting. But do BBC 2 audiences really have such short attention spans that they can deal with three hours of the bard, but not four? I remember the days of the BBC Television Shakespeare when the whole evening was given over to unexpurgated Hamlets, with maybe a five minute break for the news headlines at 10PM. Derek Jacobi, who was very nearly the Master, played the Dane; Lalla Ward, who has been married to both Tom Baker and Richard Dawkins, though not at the same time, played Ophelia; Claire Bloom, who everybody but me seems to know is the Doctor's mother, played the Queen; and Patrick Stewart played the King. What's he doing nowadays, I wonder?

*
So. Martha marries Rose's ex (and not the medical student who she was engaged to last time we saw her) because dark-skinned people always marry other dark-skinned people, don't you know. And the Doctor is standing in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to save them from being zapped with a Sontaran zap-gun. And then he's standing in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to stop Luke-from-Sarah-Jane from being knocked down by a car. And of all the bars in all the the towns in all the universe, he walks into the one where Captain Jack and the dopey one from the Titanic who everyone said was a dead cert for the next Doctor (as opposed to the Next Doctor, which I am doing my very best to erase from my memory) are hanging out, so he can play match-maker. There'd been no previous indication that Alonzo was homosexual, but all the best people are these days, don't you know.

Has the Doctor been hanging out in one bar after another for thousands of years, content in the knowledge that eventually, Captain Jack and some cute gay guy are bound to sit down next to each other? Has he been observing Sarah-Jane from on high, waiting for the moment when Luke crosses the road without due care and attention? Is there always a Guardian Doctor ready to thump Sontarans in the dorsal vent whenever Torchwood personnel are about to cop it? Or has the Doctor just, without warning, between scenes, developed a magic "be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time" power? 

It might be argued that the Doctor is always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time or else there wouldn't be much of a series. Even when the TARDIS is malfunctioning or out of control or operated by a randomiser it always dumps him in a place where something really important is about to happen. But the Doctor himself doesn't seem to know this. When he arrives on the Planet Zog he always has to spend some time talking to the Zoggians, working out where he is, when he is, what's about to happen and how to stop it.
But now, for these six scenes, he can - what? - use his omnipotent telepathic Time Lord consciousness to survey the whole of time and space, spot the moment when one of Sarah's loved ones is going to step out in front of a car and pilot the TARDIS to exactly that moment without even pausing for one nano-second to agonize about the effect that the life or death of a genetically engineered boy genius is going to have on the subsequent development of the 21st century? But if he can survey the whole of Time and Space and see everything which is ever going to happen anywhere and intervene, then why is saving Luke the priority? What about all the other kids who were hit by cars, in London, on that same day? 

What would you do if you had a TARDIS and a few hours and could visit any six moments in times and space and interfere with them with impunity. How would you change the universe? Whose lives would you save? If you could go back in time and speak to your only true love on the day before you met her, what would you tell her? What is the one thing the Doctor would tell Rose if he had one more minute with her? Dunno. The idea of the Doctor seeing Rose on New Years Day 2005 is interesting enough. Or rather. The idea that Billie Piper should walk across our screens one last time is interesting enough. Why on earth should you expect anything to lead up to it, or follow from it?

*

In Bad Wolf among other places, it was stated that the Doctor inadvertently destroyed Gallifrey while wiping out the Daleks at the end of the Time War. In The End of Time, it is randomly revealed that the Doctor intentionally destroyed the Time Lords because they had a scheme to turn themselves into gods. He thought that this would be a Bad Thing.

So there are two possibilities:

1: RTD had always planned to reveal that the Doctor had lied, or lied to himself, about the reasons for the Time Lords destruction. He has been living this lie, even to Rose, from day 1 and this has informed his personality. Now the truth is out, he will be a very different person.

2: RTD thought the line up on the spur of the moment and just bunged it in because it sounded good?

When Bob Holmes needed a legendary founder for the Time Lords (in Deadly Assassin), the name "Rassilon" emerged from his typewriter. He had evidently forgotten, or never known, that there was already a perfectly serviceable legendary Time Lord founder named "Omega". So now there were two legendary Time Lord founders. And yes, as it happens, I have read the prologue to Remembrance of the Daleks, and no, I actually don't care very much.

So: when the Doctor, out of the blue, refers to the Top Time Lord in End of Time as "Rassilon", there are two possibilities

1: RTD and Steven Moffat have a long standing and detailed history of the Time Lords worked out, and there is going to be a really interesting twist in which the current Rassilon either
a: turns out to be the same person as the original, legendary Rassilon or
b: doesn't.

2: RTD thought up the line on the spur of the moment and just chucked it in because it sounded good.


*
Old people always complain that young people's music doesn't have proper tunes. That may be because, when you hear something unfamiliar, you focus on what's unfamiliar about it: you say "This music is all drum beat, where's the melody?" because you are so not-used to music with a drum-beat that you don't actually notice the perfectly good melody behind it. It may even be that very sophisticated modern writers use non-standard, but perfectly valid, musical structures ,so that an old person claiming that pop music doesn't have tunes is in the same position as a western person who is unable to discern the melody in Chinese or Indian classical music.

But more often, I think, it's because the young people's music actually doesn't have a tune. It's very natural for teenagers to want to annoy grown-ups, so they very probably play tuneless music, and play it very loudly, precisely because it pisses the old gits off. .

So, maybe when I complain that a story which doesn't follow some discernible pattern of cause and effect isn't a "story", I'm simply marking myself off as a grumpy old man who can't see the point of this new skiffle music. Maybe expecting stories to make sense is as ludicrous as expecting poems to rhyme and scan. Maybe this quasi-narrative is what young people want nowadays. But it has to be said that the Archers and Battlestar Galactica and Cranford and Being Human and the Simpsons are all based around what I can recognize as storylines.


*
I was very pleased with Walters of Mars because it was a rather traditional bit of Who (multi-racial scientists on a space station being picked off by alien zombies, forsooth) which also managed to do some things with the character of the Doctor and the format of the programme which hadn't quite been done before. The Doctor started buggering about with the laws of time on a massive scale, and I was genuinely interested to find out what was going to happen next. My guess: a Doctor who is not bound by the Laws of Time is the greatest threat that the universe has ever faced: he himself is the darkness mentioned in the teaser for the next episode. In an ironic reversal, the Master has to destroy the Doctor in order to save the universe. Davies has been building up to this pretty much since the show started. 

The Doctor would make a good Dalek. The Doctor needs a companion to "stop" him. If the Doctor had the choice of who lived and who died, he'd be a monster.

But in fact, nothing happened next. Because nothing in new Who has a consequence. The Doctor's agonizing about what he had done and his yelling about "the Time Lord Triumphant" was just a bit of drama-queen histrionics; a scene which existed because it made a good scene but which had. No. Effing. Point.

The problem with the epilogue is not that RTD has invented a new superpower for the Doctor. People invent new superpowers for the Doctor all the time. If Gerry Davis was allowed to invent magic change-into-different-actor powers, then RTD is certainly allowed to invent magic-be-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time powers. (RTD invented magic get-into-any-secret-meeting paper, and magic get-into-any-secret-meeting-paper turned out to be quite a good idea.)

The problem is not that magic-be-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time powers undermine the whole concept of Doctor Who. The whole concept of Doctor Who has been written and rewritten many times over the years, and doubtless will be again.

The problem is not even that magic-be-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time powers raise theological difficulties of the type that were troubling Gwen.

The problem is that the script does not bother to give us one sentence, one word of explanation of where this new power comes from. It does not even seem to be aware that it is a new power, or that any explanation would be thought necessary. The Doctor can, by virtue of being the Doctor, disregard all normal dramatic rules of cause and effect: if Davies feels like writing a scene in a bar, then a scene in a bar he will damn well write. Nothing leads up to it. Nothing follows from it. There. Is. No. Point. 

*
If you spent too much time thinking about the metaphysics of regeneration, your head would explode: although obviously when I say "your head would explode" what I actually mean is that a "special baddie zapping ray would zap out of your head zapping the baddies who were about to kill you and you would go to sleep for a bit and then wake up feeling perfectly all right."

Why was the Fourth Doctor followed around by a zombie called "the Watcher" who turned out to be a future version of himself? In what way and for what reason did the Fifth Doctor's regeneration feel "different"? Why did the Seventh Doctor spend several hours in a mortuary being mostly dead? Why was Romana able to try on bodies like clothes? Why was the Valeyard?

The simple view of "regeneration" is that a Time Lord's body can, from time to time, repair itself from the inside, but that this process also jiggles up his personality. The Virgin Novels thought that this was due to itsy-bitsy teen-weeny nano-machines in their blood. It's not quite true to say that the current notion of "regeneration" was only established as dogma in the final episode of Planet of the Spiders. Yes, it was sometimes implied that Troughton was simply a younger Hartnell and Pertwee was simply Troughton with a different face, but as far back as The Three Doctors there seems to have been an idea that each version of the Doctor is a distinct person. And there is also a half-articulated notion that each of these people continues to exist in some limbo or afterlife or that they have some kind of pre-existence.

* In the TARGET novelization of the Five Doctors, the First Doctor is discovered pruning his roses in a garden. "The Doctor" we are told "Sensed that the end was near: he had come to this place to prepare himself, to say farewell to a body and a personality almost worn out by now, to prepare himself for the birth of a new self." Does this mean that the First Doctor, in his malfunctioning TARDIS, somehow left Ben and Polly by themselves at the South Pole, nipped off for a quick burst of meditation and horticulture, and then piloted himself back into the continuity before anyone had noticed? Or is Terrence Dicks pointing at some more metaphysical idea: that the Doctor in the rose-garden is in some kind of limbo state between regenerations - almost as if the dead First Doctor spends some time in the afterlife before Reincarnating in his new body?

* In the novelization of the Tenth Planet, the Second Doctor introduces himself as "the New Doctor", as if he was a different chap taking over the position, rather than the same fellow with a slightly different physical appearance.

* In the Five Doctors and the Two Doctors, the Second Doctor appears to have knowledge of events which happened in The War Games - which makes no sense if he's simply been plucked out of time at some point prior to his regeneration. Did Robert Holmes have some notion of Doctor Patrick being borrowed from an "afterlife" in which he continued to exist after turning into Doctor Jon?

* In the possibly not entirely canonical Dimensions in Time The Fourth Doctor sends out a "mayday" message to "all of the Doctors" - past and future - as if they were different people from himself.

* In "Trial of a Time Lord" (I know, I know) the Valeyard is pointedly not "the Doctor at some time in the future when he has turned evil", but "a distillation of his evil side, somewhere between his twelfth and thirteenth regeneration". This may be entirely meaningless - most of Trial of a Time Lord was - but it perhaps it suggests that the production team had some notion that regeneration was something more complicated than a simple sequence of transformations.

* And notoriously, in Destiny of the Daleks, an upstart named Adams who had no idea at all about comedy or science fiction wrote a scene in which Romana went through a sequence of transformations before settling on one she liked. It's open to question as to whether this was intended to be a "regeneration" (or if Adams knew, or cared, what "regeneration" was) - it may just have been a surreal scene to explain the fact that the lead actress was changing. But if it was meant to be a "regeneration" in the established sense, then she appears to be getting her bodies from somewhere.

So: maybe Time Lords by their nature enter into some interim, hinterland state between "lives". Maybe the First Doctor, spends his limbo-time pruning the roses; where the Twelfth Doctor spends his conspiring with the Master and pretending to be a lawyer. Maybe, in between his Fifth and Sixth lives, the Fifth Doctor becomes the Watcher to help himself come into being. Maybe it's the First Doctor, in his after-life in the rose-garden, who appears on the monitor in The Three Doctors; and it would sort out a lot of continuity problems if the three post War Games appearances of Patrick Troughton were not part of the Second Doctor's time line but somewhere between the second and third regeneration.

So maybe the omniscient Tenth Doctor who flits around the universe is a sort of ghost, projected forwards and backwards in time, like the Watcher and the Valeyard. Maybe all Time Lords make this kind of final journey, and we're just witnessing it for the first time.

Or maybe I'm making it all up out of my head and radiation just happens to kill you more slowly than a bullet in the chest does and the Doctor knows he has a few hours before he "dies" and decides to use them constructively.

I'm sure that fans can come up with any number of fan fictional explanations which make perfect sense. 

But they shouldn't ruddy well need to.



Huge parts of the plot were vague and problematic.....Of course in science fiction you can basically make it up as you go along.
The Daily Mirror

Strictly between you and me, I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on....Still, no matter because it’s just as enjoyable to let this whole story, picking up from the Christmas Day special, simply wash over you.
The Daily Star

You probably had to be a Time Lord yourself to make sense of the dizzyingly complicated plot...But this barely mattered: the episode charged forward with such apocalyptic brio it was hard to be unduly worried about what, precisely, was going on.
The Daily Telegraph

There are some sniffy people in the TV industry who have asked, archly why I am now writing genre instead of drama. Obviously they have never watched a single episode of Doctor Who. It's the best drama in the world.
Russell T Davies


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Monday, January 18, 2010


Ladies and Gentlemen:

 A collection of my writing from this forum and its predecessor is now available in book format from this address.





























It reprints:


Where Dawkins Went Wrong

The Ballad of Reading Diocese

One in a Taxi, One in a Car

The Gospel According To Judas?


...and a couple of smaller pieces.



Buy a copy for your favourite biologist. Or your least favourite bishop. 



....,and don't forget that my extended review of Watchmen is still available from the same outlet.





Tuesday, December 29, 2009

5: Judas!


although, in fairness, I'd much rather he was "weird" than "boring".

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Now, Winterval Is Banned

Andrew has been out and about in Banksyville (the town formerly known as Bristol) to see how local people are marking the annual December 25th festivity.

Scrooge-like local politicians have decreed that there should be no traditional decorations in the new Cabot's Circus shopping mall.



In order to avoid offending Muslims (TM) shops have given up using the word "Christmas" in favour of neutral expressions like "Seasons Greetings", "Happy Holidays", "Happy Solstice", and "There's Probably No Father Christmas: Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life"



The German Winterval market had no traditional characters associated with it, in order to avoid offending Muslims:


and all depiction of Christian characters was forbidden by the political correctness brigade (TM).



In order not to offend Muslims (TM), it was impossible to find any traditional nativity scenes, particularly not in charity shops:


or toy shops:



and if they had appeared, they would have been regarded as purely fictitious scenes with no more religious significance than Santa Claus:


Street decorations also eschewed images from traditional Christmas Carols, and instead used strange foreign symbols in order to avoid offending Muslims (TM)



All right thinking people should rise up and resist this appalling secularisation of our traditional British cultural traditions.